Chapter 39 Western Colorado
Dave and Helen Damouth
June 1 to June 17, 1999
6/1/99 We're on our way from Santa Fe, New Mexico to Durango, Colorado and then Mesa Verde National Park. After discovering last week that New Mexico state highways can be unmaintained dirt, we forced Map'n'Go to use only U.S. highways, yielding a route that, while somewhat longer, ought to at least be passable with the trailer. We took US 84 north to Pagosa Springs, and then US 160 west to Durango. Both highways are very scenic, narrow, occasionally without shoulders, but are generally smooth pavement and very lightly traveled. There are a few grades that may be as steep as 7%, and some tight turns, but nothing that would be a problem for even the biggest RV's. The main problem is that US 84 had very few pullouts, and with the narrow shoulders in some sections, there was no way to stop to take photos, enjoy the scenery, or smell and identify the flowers along the roadside. US 160 was better in this respect Colorado has more pullouts and picnic areas along the way.
Lots of ups and downs along this route, although the altitude stayed in the 6500 to 7900 foot range all day. We crossed the continental divide part way along US 160. Everything is much greener than in New Mexico presumably the average rainfall is significantly higher. The valleys are full of lush grass and fat, lazy, contented cattle (most of the herd lying down further south they walk all day to keep from starving).
Durango has a giant new Wal-Mart Supercenter. The grocery section is huge, and stocked with more variety than we've seen since leaving the west coast much better than any supermarket we found in Santa Fe or Albuquerque. Helen found some good-looking Bosc pears and some Camembert cheese sometime in the next few days, we'll have a wonderful lunch.
The wine selection in the liquor store adjacent to the Wal-Mart wasn't bad either for a small store in a small town. I actually found three different Amador County old vine zinfandels. While browsing the shelf labels, I discovered some new information: The mystery of the origins of the zinfandel grape may have been solved, with recent DNA comparisons. There is a close match to a little-known regional grape variety in Croatia. This store also had a large selection of micro-brewery beer, including quite a few Colorado brands. As I write this, I'm sipping a lovely India Pale Ale from Breckenridge. It's nice to be back in Yuppie-land. In Texas and New Mexico, it was almost impossible to find good beer or cheese.
After a surprisingly long shopping and information stop in Durango (Wal-mart and the Tourist Bureau), we decided to go on to Mesa Verde to set up camp another 40 miles along SR 160. The campground within the National Park has only a few full hookup sites, and doesn't take reservations. After six days of dry camping at Bandelier, we're feeling like long showers and unlimited power, so we pulled into Mesa Verde Point Kampark, near the entrance to the National Park.
6/4 Mesa Verde contains the most visually interesting ruins of all the sites we've visited to date. A cap rock of sandstone is underlaid with a layer of softer shale. As canyons eroded 600 vertical feet down through the mesa, caves formed at the boundary between the two layers. Some of these caves enlarged into huge amphitheaters, up to 90 feet deep into the canyon wall, 80 feet high at the front, and several hundred feet long. Beginning about 1100 AD, pueblos were built inside these huge spaces, protected by the sandstone overhang. Because of this protection from the elements, these ruins are much better preserved than at the many other more exposed sites. The architecture is interesting, almost whimsical multi-storied buildings built with odd angles, and occasional square or round towers extending up almost to the roof of the cavern. Each has one or more round kivas, sunk in the floor of the cave near the front, then roofed over to form part of a large plaza. Smaller houses were built on the ledge at the base of the sandstone cliff on both sides of these major settlements, usually backing up against small caves.
Rain water seeps down through the porous sandstone, then emerges from the cliff as springs at the top of the impervious shale, giving each Pueblo a protected and reliable water source at the back of the cave. This convenient water source provides one theory as to why these people moved down from their earlier mesa-top pueblos and built these less accessible homes. Other theories center around defense from hostile neighbors or more shelter from the environment. By 1300 AD, most of these pueblos were abandoned, with most of the population having moved to the Rio Grande Valley presumably because of the more reliable water supply during a period of drought. A few of the many pueblos on top of the mesa, dating from earlier eras, have been excavated and can be viewed.
The impressive cliff dwellings were originally accessed only by precarious climbing, using narrow finger and toeholds hammered into the cliff. Some have now been excavated, cleaned up, stablilized, and made accessible by modern ladders and walkways down from the mesa. Some are open for self-guided tours. Others are accessible only via ranger-led tours, with ticket and advance reservations. We took ranger led tours to Cliff Palace and to Long House, and self guided walks to several others.
Mesa Verde is more than ruins its 20 miles of roadway has many scenic views, some far out over the mesa tops to the valleys below.
6/4 After three days at Mesa Verde, we hitched up the trailer and drove back to Durango (more shopping), then headed north on US 550 paralleling the route of the Durango-Silverton narrow gauge railway. A steam locomotive pulls train loads of tourists up this route daily, but we passed up the train trip, assuming we'd see much the same scenery from the truck.
The highway started out gently climbing through the broad green valley of the Animas River. We frequently saw the train tracks. After about 15 miles, the highway diverges, but the train continues along the river, disappearing up a valley to the east. Here, the highway begins climbing steeply, past Purgatory ski area and up to Coal Bank Pass and then Molas Pass a few miles later. Both passes are slightly above the 10,900 foot contour on our topographical map and still had snowbanks alongside the road.
This was the severest test of the truck yet (and we've pulled the trailer through a lot of mountains). Half way up the grade, I saw the exhaust gas temperature approaching 1000 degrees and the engine coolant temperature climbing past 200 degrees for the first time in two years of full-time travel, notwithstanding that it was a cool day. I eased off the accelerator, shifted down to second gear, and proceeded at a more sedate pace, letting the gauges come back to a more comfortable level. Coming down from the passes to Silverton was also fairly steep. The exhaust brake, in second gear, kept our speed comfortable most of the way, touching the brakes only to slow for the tightest hairpin turns.
After advising many people to get a transmission temperature gauge, I now really wish I had one myself. I worried about what was going on in the transmission during this steep descent even more than during the uphill section and perhaps drove somewhat slower than necessary because of this worry. Other than the prolonged steep climb, this road presents no difficulties for big rigs (18-wheelers do it all the time). Shoulders are generally adequate, and pull-outs are available fairly frequently.
We finally met the mystery person. We went to the Durango Wal-Mart twice first, when arriving in town, and then three days later, when leaving. Both times, we parked near a white Ford pickup truck with a Wenonah Sundowner canoe (very similar to our Wenonah Odyssey) on the roof, Livingston, TX registration (like ours), Escapees and Boomers stickers on the window (we've got an Escapees sticker, but can't quite pretend we're boomers), and a heavy travel trailer hitch on the back. We didn't find the owner either time. Today, we turned into the pullout at the top of Coal Bank Pass to enjoy the view and let the truck cool down, and discovered that we were again parked next to the mystery truck. (What is the probability of this event?). This time the owner was sitting in the truck and we talked for a few minutes. John Bell is a fulltimer, spent last summer in Alaska, and has spent a great deal of time in this part of Colorado. He recommended a boondocking site a few miles beyond Silverton, where he and Judy have been staying for a week or so.
We're fortunate to have run into John. Instead of staying in a commercial RV Park somewhere along the highway, we're boondocking off a little dirt road (CR 7) alongside Mineral Creek, in a lovely valley just below a place called "Snowslide Gulch" on our topo map. There's another RV 100 yards downstream from us, and John is half a mile further along the road. A couple of tenters came in during the evening and camped in the trees a few hundred yards away, out of sight except for the glow of their campfires.
In this part of the valley, Mineral Creek is braided many small channels cutting back and forth through a broad flat flood plain. Where we are, the surface is a layer of rounded river pebbles, typically a few inches across, on top of gravel. Were parked a few feet from one branch of the stream. About 100 feet away, the South Branch of Mineral Creek, coming down a valley from the west, joins the slightly larger Mineral Creek, flowing down a valley from the north. The low gravely ground near the creek looks like a Christmas tree farm well spaced blue spruce trees, ranging from a few inches high to 20 feet. Many are dense, blue-green, and a perfect Christmas tree shape, without benefit of any pruning. Further back, the trees become larger, and the mountain slopes are covered with really tall spruce and fir. The north facing slopes across the creek from us are densely timbered, and dark, with white snowdrifts showing through occasional gaps. The south-facing slopes on the other side of have no snow, and already have several kinds of early wildflowers in bloom. The timberline here seems to be at about 11,000 feet in several directions, we can see the trees come to an abrupt end about 1000 feet above us, with unbroken snowfields above that.
The rocks all through these mountains are varied and interesting with occasional veins of bright yellow or red rock. Old mines are everywhere, and most of the little mountain roads were built by the mining industry. The streams are also stained red, due to rainwater leaching minerals from the mine tailings.
This is probably the highest elevation at which we've spent a night. The night sky is amazing. There's relatively little atmosphere between us and the stars, and so the stars are much brighter than we're used to, and we can see so many stars that it makes the old familiar constellations hard to distinguish among the clutter.
6/5 We awoke this morning to find the creek lined with ice. The little branch of the stream next to us had noticeably less flow than yesterday, and continued to dry up during the day, suggesting that the temperature is below freezing higher up in the mountains so that the snow fields have stopped melting. During the night, it was well below freezing at the trailer. During the sunny morning, the temperature rose all the way to 42 degrees. Then, clouds filled in from the west, the temperature dropped, and it began snowing. As I write this, it is 37 degrees and our long view is disappearing. The nearest ranks of trees are outlined sharply against a grey-white background. The spiky line of trees on top of little ridge a few hundred yards away have become a shadowy outline, barely visible. The next ridge back is only just a faint grey hint, and beyond that, nothing but white.
The snow continued off and on all day, the temperature continued to fall, and by evening about two inches of snow had accumulated on the ground, with three to four inches on cooler surfaces like the truck and the top of the trailer. All the trees have snow hanging heavy on outer branches a perfect Christmas scene in June!
6/6 We awoke to a sparkling white world. The sun is shining brightly from a deep blue sky, and everything is covered with snow. As the sun rose higher, I was puzzled as to why we were getting almost no battery charging from the solar panels. It finally dawned on me that the panels were covered with several inches of snow a new experience for us. After climbing up on the roof and sweeping the snow off the panels, we're back to normal performance. The snow melted quickly in the hot sun, creating a continuous display of little avalanches cascading down through the spruce and fir branches around us. By late morning the new snow was gone, except where it covered the dirt on the thick old snowdrifts in the forest.
We explored in the truck today. CR-7, going west from our campsite, leads to a formal NFS campground, then degenerates into a jeep trail which we were only able to follow for a short distance before finding trees down across the road and snowdrifts deeper than we wanted to tackle.
Up the highway a few miles north, we found CR-8 leading west dirt, but in fairly good condition. We followed it for several miles, initially up a deep valley along the Middle Branch of Mineral Creek, then up a series of steep switchbacks which soon carried us above the timber line, and then through deep snowfields. We were surprised that this tiny dirt road, which seemed to lead nowhere, had been plowed. We found ourselves driving along a narrow track just wide enough for the truck, with a 10-foot wall of old compacted snow on one side and a steep dropoff on the other. The road surface was wet, and often steep, and we do not have four-wheel drive. Just as we were looking for a wide enough spot to turn around, the road leveled out a bit, the skyline to the west developed a gap, and we found that we were at Ophir Pass, 11,500 feet elevation. From here, we had a spectacular view out over the mountains, both to the west and to the east. The snow is still very deep up here. We're amazed that we were able to get so high. There are still a few stunted trees in protected locations, but the dense spruce forest ended about 500 feet below us, so we're looking out over uninterrupted snow fields.
At this point, heavy clouds began to fill in from the west, and the forecasted thunderstorm seemed to be about to become a reality. Discretion won out over curiousity and we turned around and headed back the way we came out to the highway and then south to Silverton.
We arrived in Silverton just as the afternoon tourist train vintage narrow-gauge rolling stock and a steam locomotive - was turning around, preparing for its run back to Durango. We stopped and watched the process: the train stopped, a guy jumped off and threw a switch on the tracks, the train backed slowly around a long curve onto a siding, stopped while another switch was thrown, pulled forward around another curve onto the main track, waited while the switch was thrown again, then backed into the center of Silverton. The engine was belching an amazing amount of black smoke, and steam was hissing noisily from several orifices. Every stop and start was accompanied by several toots on the steam whistle. An interesting performance we wanted to applaud when the train finally completed its turn and stopped in the "station" (actually just the end of the track, in the middle of a dirt street. A small RV Park borders the tracks right where this turnaround process occurs staying here would offer a nice view of the train as well as of the surrounding mountains, and free entertainment.
As we drove the few blocks into the center of town, tourists were erupting from all the shops and restaurants and hurrying across the dirt streets toward the train, summoned by the steam whistle. The two-block length of "Old Town" is quaint mostly ramshackle buildings, some with corrugated steel sides, some built of logs. Most are occupied by the usual tourist shops. We left some film to be processed at a one-hour photo shop, and drove north out of town on the "The Alpine Loop", a National Scenic Byway that requires a high-clearance 4-wheel-drive vehicle in places. The route includes two passes that are 12,600 feet high, and goes within hiking distance of five 14,000 foot peaks. The brochure makes this sound like a very interesting drive there are numerous side roads, ghost towns, abandoned mines, etc. But it's a bit early in the season to try it now, and our 2WD truck might not be able to negotiate the route anyway. Perhaps we'll return in a few weeks and rent a jeep for a day. Today we settled for just a few miles of the route past several inactive mines, an ore separation mill, and several small mountains of vari-colored tailings from the mill. This mill extracted 1.5 million ounces of gold, ten times that much silver, and large quantities of zinc and other metals before closing. Almost anywhere we look, we can see mine shafts on the mountainsides.
6/7 The hummingbirds here are tame and aggressive somebody must have been feeding them. Twice, I've been startled to look out a window and see a hummingbird hovering, nearly touching the glass, staring in at me. When standing still outside, a hummingbird frequently buzzes around us, investigating any of our colored clothing. These birds fly with a high pitched buzz, so I can hear them coming unusual. Our bird book says, of the broadtailed hummingbird, "flies with a distinctive shrill metallic wing whistling".
The drive north to Ouray on US-550 is spectacular, particularly the steep descent from Red Mountain Pass and then down through the narrow rocky canyon into Ouray. Doing this again tomorrow, towing the trailer, will be fairly exciting. Tourist literature calls this the million dollar highway, but no one knows if the name refers to the cost of building the highway, the value of gold left in the numerous mine tailings in the valleys, or the tourist value of the scenery.
Ouray is bigger and more prosperous looking than Silverton, and like Silverton, seems to be primarily a tourist town. There is a huge outdoor swimming pool in the middle of town, operated by the city, fed by hot springs from a mountain slope above. We drove the jeep road up toward Yankee Boy, past another huge (but apparently inactive) mine. In places, this road is blasted out of the side of a sheer cliff, barely one lane wide. The views of the canyon are impressive. Later, we drove around Ouray enjoying the quirky ambience and the Victorian architecture, and then drove up to the NFS Ampitheater Campground, which is high above the town in a huge natural amphitheater surrounded by steep mountain faces. A nice spot, but with a 22' RV length limit.
We've been watching a helicopter flying almost random patterns over the mountains and down through the valleys. It has a huge white torpedo-shaped object dangling on a cable. It has passed over the trailer twice, and also passed over us yesterday, when we were up near Ophir Pass. I speculate that the torpedo is some sort of geological survey instrument - perhaps a magnetometer?
6/8 Driving over Red Mountain Pass and down to Ouray with the trailer wasn't as bad as I expected. Traffic was light, and we took our time going up, keeping engine temperatures comfortably low and enjoying the scenery. Going down (at least 2000 feet from the pass down to the town) was the first time that I've had the truck in low gear for an extended period. And even in low with the exhaust brake on, I had to lightly touch the brakes coming into each of the many hairpin turns. The lanes are comfortably wide, but in a few places, the shoulder has washed out, so that there are no guard rails and a sheer drop beginning right at the edge of the pavement. Passing an 18-wheeler at one of these points yields a few moments of white knuckles.
After Ouray, the road gradually leveled out in a broad valley, and we began to get long views to the north and west, across large mesas and canyons. We stopped, only 60 miles north of our previous campsitet, at Montrose KOA, where we'll spend a couple of days visiting the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Monument.
6/9 The Black Canyon gets its name from the dark igneous rock from which it is formed precambrian gneiss, with lighter dikes of pegmatite pushing jaggedly up through it like inverted lightning bolts. The pegmatite is fascinating, where it comes to the surface along the trail. It's full of mica and quartzite and occasional garnet, and these harder materials erode out and cover the ground. At certain sun angles, the path sparkles and glints in front of us as we walk along. Unlike other major canyons, the river drops steeply through this entire canyon forming almost continuous rapids. This is because the rock is so hard that the river is cutting down through it quite slowly even on a geological time scale.
It's not the biggest or deepest canyon in the world, but it is narrow and steep-sided. At one point, there is an almost vertical continuous cliff face called the Painted Wall, extending 2300 feet from the rim all the way down to the river. The pegmatite dikes decorate this entire face with fascinating patterns. A road winds along both rims. We drove the south rim, stopping at each overlook to walk a short trail out to a viewpoint, each with views different from the previous one. At the end of the road, a longer trail (1.5 miles round trip) leads out to Warner point the western most point of the high rim. From here, there is a view east up the deep canyon, west out over the valley to a huge mesa in the hazy distance, northwest to Grand Mesa, and south to the snow-capped San Juan mountains, from whence we came yesterday. It's a magic place. I sat for a long time on a comfortable rock, with my legs dangling into the canyon and another rock forming a perfect backrest, absorbing the scenery, dozing, and cataloging all the faint sounds around me:
The faint roar of the rapids half a mile below is the underlying continuous sound. Against that, I hear: the occasional harsh croak of a raven soaring nearby; the quiet chitter of the violet-green swallows darting after insects all around me; the faint doppler-shifted "whoosh" of air over feathers as black and white swifts live up to their name flying past at up to 180 mph; several kinds of flies buzzing about their random business; the faint rumble of a jet far overhead, almost merging with the slightly different river rumble; the distinctive hiss of occasional wind gusts in the needles of an exposed fir tree along the cliff edge.
As I sit quietly, a tiny black and white spider is exploring my knee and arm, rushing around surprisingly rapidly, occasionally jumping several inches across a gap (I hadn't been aware that spiders could jump). I see the faint shimmer of the almost invisible silk thread trailing behind, marking every twist and turn of its path.
Later, we drove east and descended into the canyon. The road twists and turns violently, descending at a 14% to 16% grade through a side canyon, to the site of a diversion tunnel built in the early 1900's to provide irrigation water to the valleys around Montrose. The tunnel extends 5.8 miles north and is still in use today. Upstream to the east, we can see the first of a series of large dams, part of the huge Colorado River water impoundment system, which provides year-round regulated water flow for power generation, flood control and irrigation.
6/10 A quiet day at home laundry, organizing, writing and relaxing.
6/11 A long day trip up onto Grand Mesa a huge mesa (hundreds of square miles on top) 10,500 feet high. The top is almost entirely National Forest, with several lakes and rivers up there. We drove up from the west on Land's End Road an incredibly twisty little dirt track which seems to take forever to get to the top. The views out over the valley to the west are impressive. We went through several climatic zones on the way up, each with its own distinctive plants and trees.
On top, we found ourselves in gently rolling grassland. We stopped at the "Land's End Observatory" a rough building built by the WPA in the 1930's, right on the westernmost promontory of the mesa. The building is shuttered and vacant, but the views are expansive, and the meadow was filled with flowers we hadn't seen elsewhere including a big showy pasqueflower which looks remarkably like a pink tulip when is first begins to open. We can see the high snowy San Juan Mountains to the south. There is also a compact little range of snow-capped mountains on the western horizon, sticking up out of the flat high mesa country. Don't know what they are. As we drive east, the mesa top rises gently, and we begin to see trees and in the lee of the trees, we begin to find large snowdrifts. Just before we got to the paved SR 65, we were stopped by large snowddrifts across the road. We backtracked, tried an even smaller jeep track which wandered north then east, and after sloshing through small drifts and big muddy areas, pretending we had a 4WD, we again got stopped by deep snow on the road just before reaching a "real" road. We had planned a circular tour, but will have to turn back. Oh well I think we saw the most scenic part of the mesa. We backtracked the way we came doing all the twists and turns of that tortuous little road all over again in the other direction.
6/12 A lazy day of puttering. Helen did some housecleaning, Dave visited a local bike shop for parts and did some bike repair, then took a test ride around town.
6/13 We drove west from Montrose on SR 90, across the Uncompagre River valley. The highway degenerated into a well-maintained gravel forest road, and climbed 3900 vertical feet up onto a large mesa which is unnamed on our map. The high point of the mesa was about 9900 feet. The eastern slopes of the mesa are BLM land, some of the central portion is private ranch land, and most of the western part is Uncompagre National Forest. Both the BLM land and the NFS land had numerous places to camp, some with spectacular views from the edge of the mesa. We'll separately write up these interesting boondocking sites, and send them to the Boondocker's Journal for inclusion in their database.
Most of the high meadows on the mesa were densely carpeted with flowers. In just a few stops, walking along the roadside or through the meadows, we saw an amazingly large number of flowers: acres of bright yellow avalanche lily, white candy tuft, ugly buttercup (yes, that's really the name), subalpine buttercup, alpine phacelia, larkspur, tough-leaved iris, lupine, spring beauty, saxifrage, strawberry, yellow pea, yellow clover, plus other less showy species which we didn't try to identify.
6/14 This was Colorado National Monument day for us (and also Flag Day as we discovered while driving through Delta, which had American Flags on poles spaced about every 20 feet on both sides of the street for the entire length of the city.)
It was a long day trip from Montrose, but we had no other reason to be in the Grand Junction area, and so decided not to move the trailer up there. Colorado National Monument is the eastern-most of the National Parks and Monuments on the huge Colorado Plateau, and is closely related to the others of this group in particular, it felt quite similar to Canyonlands National Park in Utah. The park is on a huge sandstone Mesa, created by a massive uplift (several thousand feet) on the south of a vertical fault, the margins of which subsequently eroded into fantastic sandstone sculptures cliffs and pinnacles carved out of the vari-colored sandstone layers. It was a hot day close to 90 even at 6000 feet, and we didn't take advantage of the many hiking opportunities in the park, other than the short walks to scenic viewpoints along the road. The scenery is spectacular, definitely worth a longer visit. We drove through the campground in the park. It is right at the edge of the cliffs - with wonderful views of the canyons and out across the plains to the distant mountains in the east. Some sites would handle big RV's. There were plenty of empty sites, in mid-afternoon. Someday, we'll have to bring the trailer up here. I think we could manage the road with the trailer.
6/15 The itch to move on is getting stronger. From here, there are too many interesting directions to head, and not enough time to do them all (since we've just committed to being in Minneapolis Minnesota on July 23). At the last minute, we decided to take the small state routes northeast through the mountains to Aspen. We hooked up the trailer, and took SR 92 east from Delta, and then SR 133 up the North Fork of the Gunnison River, over a pass, and down the Crystal River to Carbondale. Then, SR-82 follows the Roaring Fork River up to Aspen. The day was rainy, with storm clouds often obscuring the mountains, and the road frequently wet. The stormy skies added drama to the mountain scenery. These are mostly old, rounded, mountains, increasing gradually in height as we move east. We stopped several times along the way to admire a little waterfall or examine the roadside flowers. The streams and rivers are all flowing vigorously. Where the canyons are narrow and rocky, the noise of the rushing water made it difficult for us to talk to each other.
Along SR 133, we passed a lot of active coal mining. Long trains of coal cars were creeping down out of the high valley, and other trains were sitting on sidings being loaded. Conveyers wound snake-like from huge concrete storage bins along the tracks up side canyons, or up the mountainsides to mine shafts. At Redstone, we stopped to look at a long row of beehive-shaped brick coke ovens, long abandoned, and now disintegrating.
We stopped for the night at Basalt, 20 miles northwest of Aspen, at Aspen-Basalt Campground the closest full-service campground to Aspen. Property taxes, and perhaps zoning, make campgrounds impractical in highbrow Aspen. Even in Basalt, we're paying $29/night and the manager said that they aren't sure how much longer they'll be able to continue operating in the face of higher taxes.
6/16 Maroon Bells (a scenic area managed by NFS) is a lovely place. The lakes and canyon are reminiscent of Lake Louise in Banff, but on a slightly smaller scale. From what we hear, the crowds during the main tourist season would also be reminiscent of Lake Louise something we'd prefer not to experience. Today, we're early enough in the season so that we were able to drive up the canyon and park near Maroon Lake (beginning next week, visitors must park in Aspen and take a shuttle bus into the canyon.)
We hiked 3 miles round trip (and about 500 feet of elevation change) to Crater Lake, a crystal-clear small lake fed by snow melt from the extensive snow fields on the surrounding mountains, and retained by a huge glacial moraine which forms a natural dam across the canyon. The Maroon Bells mountains (three closely-spaced peaks of dark reddish rock, which somebody thought were sort of bell shaped) rise steeply behind the lake, still mostly snow covered. The hike was very pleasant, although the trail is heavily used, and we passed many people even on a cool stormy day. The spring flowers are putting on a show. We saw at least five different kinds of violet yellow and white as well as the traditional color. Elderberry bushes were showing off their large cream-colored flower clusters. Columbine, meadow rue, and false solomon's seal were just coming into bloom. Three separate thunderstorms passed over while we were on the trail, but the rain from each lasted only 10 minutes or so. One pelted us with small hail briefly. While I was standing at the shore of Crater Lake, one nearby peal of thunder echoed back and forth between the high cliffs on both sides of the lake a stereo effect that lasted several seconds.
Aspen looks just like what it is a very expensive tourist town. The whole area is growing much faster than the infrastructure can handle, creating traffic jams, and a continuing maze of highway construction delays. Expensive homes are tucked into every accessible cranny on the steep mountainsides, and rows of condominiums are creeping up the side canyons. The ski slopes that we could see from the road didn't look all that impressive. I think I'll do my skiing in Utah!
Our initial trip plan called for continuing east on SR 82 over Independence Pass when we left the Aspen area. However, road signs prohibit vehicles over 35 feet. Neither of our vehicles is "over 35 feet" we're 55 feet overall, but we bend in the middle not clear whether we're prohibited or not. The campground manager strongly advised against trying it. We decided to see for ourselves, and drove up to the pass without the trailer. A few miles of road just to the west of the pass could be a real problem. One of the switchbacks is among the sharpest turns I've ever seen on a road. Several others were very sharp, and blind. We could get around them with the trailer, but we'd be using both lanes. With limited visibility, if we met one of the frequent kamakazi SUV drivers in the turn, they would have a choice of hitting us broadside or taking a long dive over the cliff. Worse yet, some sections of the road aren't a full two lanes wide. It's not marked as one-way but the highway department stopped painting a centerline through that area. There's no way that two large vehicles could pass if they met.
It's a beautiful drive, and an interesting view both east and west from the turnout at the summit (which is on the continental divide, at 12,095 feet). There are interpretive signs at the summit and at Independence. The trip over the pass, which now takes an hour in a car, took 10 to 25 hours by horse, when the road was first opened in the late 1800's. On the other hand, the pass is often closed to cars in the winter, while horse traffic continued year round, using sleighs in the winter. Independence is a ghost town a few miles west of the pass many log cabins are still visible, most of them with a tiny outhouse still standing. The town was founded with a gold strike on July 4, 1879 hence the name. It was abandoned in 1908, when the gold played out, and the railroad was completed up the canyon from the northwest to Aspen, eliminating most of the traffic over the difficult pass.
6/17 Moved on to Denver. The route, up SR 82 to I 70 then straight east to Denver, was lined with great scenery, which we enjoyed in spite of the rainstorm that accompanied us some of the way through the mountains. Interstate 70 follows the Colorado River, then the Eagle River, then progressively smaller streams upstream through an impressive series of canyons. The grade is fairly steady never extreme. But the canyons twist and turn continuously, and the highway is tacked onto the side of the cliffs, and twists and turns with them. At the narrowest, steepest places, the westbound lanes are glued to the cliff directly above the eastbound lanes. Occasionally, the road runs over a sort of continuous bridge in the bottom of a canyon, above the river, and nearly filling the canyon from side to side.
About the time that the canyons disappear, the highway dives into the Eisenhower Tunnel, at 11,900 feet, which cuts straight through the mountain for almost two miles, descending gradually for the entire distance. The Glenwood Canyon portion of this route is one of the most impressive sections of Interstate Highway in the country as well as one of the most expensive and one of the last to be completed. The Colorado Legislature resolution authorizing the construction stated that the project was required to "blend the wonder of human engineering with the wonders of nature". It succeeded, although construction was delayed for many years by emotional confrontations between road designers and environmentalists. The project included establishing the largest nursery in the state, to allow replanting all the native vegetation that was disturbed. New techniques for artificially weathering and staining fresh-cut rock so it blends in with the undisturbed rock were developed, and are now in use worldwide. We suggest that those of you who prefer to avoid Interstates should not avoid this one the scenery is unmatched, and the engineering feat is right up there among the top handful of human constructs.
After cresting the pass, coasting down the 80-mile-long hill into Denver, losing over a mile of altitude, gave our exhaust brake a good test.
We're staying at Denver North Campground a bit far out of town and not our first choice, but the first several places we called were full. It's a pleasant place, although a bit noisy (located between two nearby busy highways. A modem plug (on a payphone) is conveniently located in a quiet meeting room, and accessible 24 hours a day. We're in the Denver local calling area, and have a local number for our ISP, so I'll pig out on Internet time while it is nearly free.) Crossing the continental divide seems like the right time to break off this chapter we'll call the next chapter Eastern Colorado.